So here it is, the review to end all reviews (of The Last Jedi). Major SPOILERS ahead!
I’ve been waiting to write this review–even second-guessing whether I should do it–for some time. I have let it stew in my head, but now it’s all about to burst.
Part of it is the toxic response many folks out there have made to the poor audience reviews of the film. They blame neo-nazis and crazy, irrational fans instead of accepting that some people might have genuine issues with the film. You’d be surprised, reading many of the professional critiques of the film, that it has many, many problems. Big problems.
Even so, the film is not without its merits. It is, in fact, a decent movie, if far from the A-grade many critics have given it. At the scene-level, the film is spectacular, both visually and narratively. It is at the larger scales that the movie starts to break down. Lazy storytelling, plot holes, and contractions that break down the entire Star Wars universe.
Let me be frank, I didn’t mind most of the story decisions Rian Johnson made. I didn’t mind Snoke’s unceremonious end, the destruction of the Resitance, or Rey’s parentage (though, as someone pointed out to me, the latter requires you taking Kylo Ren at his word and believing him to even know the honest truth of the matter–I wouldn’t be surprised to see J.J. Abrams undo this in the next film). I am more than willing to accept (especially given the disappointing, derivative nature of The Force Awakens) that sometimes Star Wars needs to go in another direction. My issues with The Last Jedi have less to do with the story than with the execution. As I mentioned, on a small scale, it works. But in the context of the entire film, or more importantly, the entire saga, not so much.
Let me warn you, this is going to be a long post. First I am going to offer my own review of the film, primarily looking at many of the key problems with the movie that the critics have ignored. After that, I am going to examine the split between critical and audience reception and try to suggest what I think happened there.
So strap in for the ride.
Let me start with the good stuff. The cinematography, effects, music–all the things that Star Wars is know for–are exemplified in The Last Jedi. The acting is commendable, but not perfect. Scene by scene, the film shines. You can read about this stuff in any critic’s review of the film, so I will limit my discussion here to a couple great scenes.
The first is the bomber attack on the First Order dreadnought at the start of the film. So many behind-the-scenes documentaries have been done on the George Lucas and the first Star Wars, that it is now well known that he based his spaces battles on old World War II films. The effects team even copied these films shot by shot. So I was a bit excited to see that old war spirit once again evoked in the new film. The bomber scene felt very much like a fleet of B-17s flying over Germany while being harrased by flak and Messerschmitts.
The second scene worth mentioning is the fight in Snoke’s throne room. There is a lot of plot building that goes on in this scene, but for me the best part is having two jedi fighting side by side. It was reminiscent of what made the prequels fun to watch. And, of course, the scene is visually stunning with bright colors and visceral action.
That scene centers on two major plot twists, Kylo’s betrayal and assassination of Snoke, and the two young force users maintaining their allegiances to light and dark, despite heavy-handed attempts to lead the audience to expect otherwise. Which sums up one of the biggest problems with the film as a whole: way too many red herrings and surprise twists.
I made the snarky comment elsewhere that this film single-handedly makes a cliche of the unexpected plot twist. Almost every major and sub-plot line ends with some sort of twist, to the point where it becomes tiresome by the middle of the movie. The rebels make their escape–nope, secret tracking device. Luke is going to train Rey to be a jedi–nope, he’s just a grouchy old man. That rogue Finn and Rose pick up at Canto Bight, who starts out sketchy but redeems himself several times–he betrays them, for no clear reason since a thief of his caliber doesn’t seem to be in need of funds. Luke Skywalker facing down Kylo Ren–nope, that’s just a force projection (almost as bad of a twist as having the whole story be a dream).
Now there’s nothing wrong with a plot-twist. The Empire Strikes Back had a couple whoppers. But doing it again and again feels horribly lazy. Empire–which is the obvious comparison for The Last Jedi, as it was the middle film of a previous trilogy–has only two major plot twists, Lando’s betrayal and Vader’s reveal. Also, both twist are strongly hinted at throughout the film. It is clear from the beginning of the movie that Vader has some sort of relationship to Luke, though we do not know what it is. And when the main group arrives at Cloud City, one of the first things to happen is that C3PO gets blown up after stumbling on something he shouldn’t. It is clear that something is not right, and Han has repeatedly stated that Lando couldn’t be fully trusted. So it comes as a surprise, but not out of the blue, to see Lando side with Vader.
The problem with many, if not most, of the twists in The Last Jedi, is that they are not even hinted at. Instead, the audience is led to believe something so strongly, and given no evidence to suggest otherwise, that the twist comes across as a cheat, not a proper red herring. Doing this repeatedly is not only trying on viewers, it feels blatantly dishonest. It feels like a lazy way to get an emotional reaction from an audience. It’s all smoke and mirrors. And the brutal truth about smoke and mirrors is that showmen rely on them when there is no real magic.
Another comparison with Empire is equally telling. The older film only has four major blocks of scenes: Hoth, the asteroid field, Degobah, and Cloud City. And yet, so much is done within those limited locales. The Last Jedi is stuffed full of subplots, locations, characters, action–to the point where it is hard to follow everything.
The key violator here is the whole Canto Bight subplot, that serves no real purpose other than to earthenize pod-racing and show off come nice CGI. Nothing is done there, that is key to the plot, that couldn’t have been done on one of the ships in the fleet. One review I read suggested the importance of the scene was in seeing the sort of people who supported the First Order. One does not need to understand the supporters of a group that is willing to press a button and destroy an entire populated star system. They are clearly meant to be a representation of evil; let it just be that way.
The Canto Bight scene also shows the grey politics of the time, in that the same people who supply weapons to the First Order also sell to the Resistance. Besides the point that this is just not logical, the First Order is clearly powerful enough to stop any double-dealing, Star Wars has never needed modern moral allegory. In fact, people go to Star Wars to turn off the real world. It is fantasy escapism at its best. Yes, the Empire of the original trilogy (and the First Order) were derived from the nazis, but in a very extreme, even ridiculous sort of way. Even the politics and economics in the prequels were there simply to set the plot, never as an allegory for the modern world. Whenever a writer or filmmaker tries to show the moral ambiguity of the Empire–such as with Claudia Grey’s Lost Stars–it falls flat. It cannot help but fall flat. Once you have a group of people who allow the death star to destroy an entire planet, there is no going back. Trying to show moral justification (“they’re all rebel terrorists”) just comes off as absurd.
I would have much preferred all the time wasted on action and CGI in Canto Bight to have been used for some proper character development. As it stands, the most unjustifiably neglected character in the new trilogy is General Hux. Who is this guy? And what allowed him to drop to the level of mass planeticide? He is essentially the stand-in for Tarkin in this trilogy. One of the most interesting Star Wars books I’ve read in a long time was the book Tarkin by James Luceno, which explained the Grand Moff’s origins. The work helped to flesh out what had been a largely cardboard (but fun) character. Hux deserves equal care, and it would be much more enlightening to see how one one person can choose to join the side of evil, rather than some boring diatribes on weapon sales.
Some reviewers have suggested one needs to see the movie twice to appreciate and understand it all. When did that become a good thing? A movie should be a complete and proper experience when only seen once, because most people will only see it once.
This, of course, is the reality of modern blockbuster film-making. It is especially true for franchises with large merchandising bases (looking at you Transformers, and the two million robots you tried to stuff in that second film, the first I film I ever felt like walking out of). But a good film is one that gives you time to pause and consider what has happened, to predict what will happen. There is no time to breathe in The Last Jedi.
But for me, the biggest problem is how the film fits within the entire saga. A film should not be judged on its own, but must be viewed in the context of its series and of the entire tradition of film. Two story choices Rian Johnson made with The Last Jedi retroactively break the entire franchise.
The first, and most obvious, is the light-speed kamikaze attack by Admiral Holdo against Snoke’s flagship. Not only is it illogical to think that the rebel flagship would not have autopilot (other ships all do), and thus require a pilot to simply push the throttle ( a droid couldn’t do it, by remote?), but this is also a very old and tired cliche in science fiction. The captain going down with the ship, setting a collision course, and all that. Worse, it directly contradicts the whole theme of the moment, that every rebel life is important and should be protected. What’s the difference between losing a few bomber pilots and losing the Resistance’s second-in-command?
But the biggest problem with this scene is the logical loophole it sticks us in. “Llightspeed” travel, which is clearly faster-than-light travel, is never explained in the prior films. I’ve always figured it was some sort of wormhole based transiting. But The Last Jedi has decided to show there is real physical movement tied with the lightspeed jump. This has irrevocable and damaging consequences.
No large space battles could exist in a world where a single fighter could kamikaze into a cruiser and destroy it. A couple fighters, based on the laws of physics and momentum, could have blow Snoke’s giant flagship apart. It would take only a few more to cripple, if not destroy, the death star. And before you say the rebels’ morality wouldn’t allow them to risk even a single fighter pilot on a kamikaze attack, remember that they left Admiral Holdo to go down with her ship (I mentioned how that undermined the whole moral theme). They also sent groups on suicide missions at the end of A New Hope and Rogue One. History has show that when resistance groups get backed into a corner, they are more than willing to make sacrifices for large gains. Rain Johnson has created a universe where no big naval battles, one of the linchpins of Star Wars, can logically exist.
Not to mention that dropping out of lightspeed, though atmo and next to a planet, would have done huge damage (sorry Force Awakens).
The second illogical and game-breaking choice is in allowing force ghosts to have a physical impact on the world. If Yoda can call down lightning on a tree, how is Kylo Ren still alive? Hell, how did Vader survive after Yoda was gone? And what about all the past, unmentioned jedi who became force ghosts? The thing about power that the prequels were supposed to teach us is that it gets abused.
And there is Luke Skywalker’s illogical character arc for the past two films. Little can be said that Mark Hamill hasn’t already. But suffice it to say, it makes no sense for a character who risked his life and the fate of the Rebellion on the hope that Vader could be redeemed, to fall into a sudden homicidal fit at the first sign a child might be influenced by the dark side. I understand that Rian Johnson needed to force Luke Skywalker off the stage to make room for the new characters, but it ended up feeling nothing but forced. And being force-fed something, especially something you don’t like, really sucks.
Many critics have praised The Last Jedi for being unexpected and surprising. But perhaps the most surprising thing about The Last Jedi is how unsurprising it actually is. If you look at whole film, it follows Empire’s plotline rather closely. The Empire destroys the last sanctuary of the Rebellion, the last great hope runs off for jedi training, a dramatic betrayal shifts the momentum in the Empire’s favor. The film starts with the rebels on the run and ends with the imperials securely on top. That’s the same general plot in both films.
Perhaps more significantly, is how true the film is to the trailers. The interesting thing to see when the trailers came out was how everyone expected them to be a trick, edited in creative ways to lead the audience to false expectations. There were no real fake-outs. When Luke says “It’s time for the jedi to end,” he is being very literal, not hinting at the need for some new sort of grey order. The trailers show Kylo Ren to be the dark and Rey to be the light, and the film follows that. How much more pleasing would it have been for Kylo to be redeemed and Rey to have fallen.
And of course, there is Kylo Ren’s character arc, which we are led to believe sunders tradition, but doesn’t. This is particularly the case with the “rule of two,” a cornerstone of Star Wars lore. Even as Kylo tells us to cast out old ideas such as the sith, he acts just like one. We are teased to believe that Kylo will be redeemed and join Rey on the lightside, that he kills Snoke to make it happen. But no, Kylo stays on the dark side. What he has done, in fact, is the same thing that countless sith have done before him, the basis of the rule of two. When a sith apprentice becomes strong enough, he will usurp and kill his master, taking his (or her) place. This is clearly what Kylo had in mind when he killed Snoke and asked Rey to join him. Rey, being the newbie, would be his apprentice (he made the same overture in The Force Awakens). Kylo’s wants or actions have no bearing on Rey’s decision to reject the offer. Her rejection is not part of his arc. Kylo’s character arc is characteristically sith. Things could change in the next film, if for instance, he decides to go it alone and not take an apprentice (but what about all those Knights of Ren who are supposedly out there somewhere?). But nothing unconventional happens with Kylo Ren in this film, despite how hard the director tries to trick us into believing so.
In the end, what we got were a bunch of little plot twists, but an entirely predictable and telegraphed larger story.
And yet, this film has received rave reviews from critics. But why? If you actually look at the text of some reviews of the film, it might leave you a bit confused. While many reviews simply ignore all of the flaws and blatant plot holes in the movie, many other acknowledge severe issues with the film and still give it high scores.
Ethan Sacks of New York Daily News notes “a solid, but not spectacular, first half of the 2.5-hour movie” and yet gives the movie 4 1/2 of 5 stars. That’s almost a perfect score. It’s 90%, an A-. Professors reserve such grades only for the best work, not something that is simply “solid,” certainly not for a student who “overplays his hand.”
Peter Howell of the star argues “The film’s paunchy middle section includes a trip to a casino that might better have ended up on the cutting-room floor. The unnecessary padding accounts for the 152-minute running time, a franchise record, which will test the patience (and bladders) of even the most devoted followers.” And yet, he too, gives the film an almost perfect score, at 3 1/2 of 4 stars.
Ty Burr of the Boston Globe says “The midsection sags and, other than the heroes’ desperate attempts to survive, there’s no central story line to pull the various satellites of action in its wake.” No central story line to pull it all together? That’s a huge fault. But he still gives the film 4 stars.
Matt Seitz of RogerEbert.com gives the film a perfect score despite the arguing that “There are spots where the film can’t figure out how to get the characters to where it needs them to be and just sort of shrugs and says, ‘And then this happened, now let’s get on with it.'” How can a film whose plot points do not work be perfect?
Audiences were less enthused about the film. Some have (at times viciously) attributed this to over-attached fans and a toxic fandom. Others have attributed this to an Alt-Right conspiracy, which certain outlets were all to happy to jump on. Many folks seem incapable of attributing the poor audience reviews to a genuine dislike of the movie and a reaction to real problems with the film.
But such a general dislike, in fact, seems to be the case. Many fans simply don’t care for the film. This is shown in the film’s horrible second week earnings, the lowest for any Star Wars film ever. An article in Forbes notes that “no other movie has come anywhere close to the picture’s $151.5 million 2nd weekend box office razing, there’s no movie comparison that gives its record-obliterating failure proper context.” The report also mentions that “only a handful of movies—The Last Jedi, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows Part 2, Batman v. Superman among them—have ever shed $100 million or more in box office totals from one weekend to the next.” The Last Jedi has a viewership decline in its second week almost as bad as Batman v. Superman (68.9% drop verses a 69.1%). There is no conspiracy simply affecting a Rotten Tomatoes audience score; there is genuine dissatisfaction with the movie itself. Though you’d be hard-pressed to read about in much of the media.
So what exactly is going on? Why did the critics give the film such a higher score than the audiences? One theory I read suggested that Disney exerted influence on critics to coerce higher review scores. With the acquisition of Fox, Disney is one of the most powerful entertainment companies in the world. By threatening to withdraw ad revenue and screenings for critics, Disney could surely force the hand of many companies, particularly those whose main station is online. Of course, this is a stretch and there is no evidence of it. I highly doubt this to be the case, but I’d believe this before I’d believe the entire audience backlash was fabricated. One is simply more logically, and logistically, plausible.
If not conspiracy, then what? My best guess is that the sorry state of blockbuster films in recent years have led critics to feel relieved with even a “pretty good” film in The Last Jedi. Despite its problems, the newest Star Wars is far ahead of its contemporary competition. But a film should not, nay cannot, be analyzed on its own. A film, like any work of art, is part of a long tradition and fits into a context of relation with other works of its kind. And unfortunately, when compared to film tradition, and the saga in which it is a part, The Last Jedi is far from perfect, if not deeply flawed.
In the end, reviewing is a subjective art, and that might be all there is to it. Some critics might have favored looks over logic enough to render high scores. One even could question how I could rate the film at 7/10 with all the negative comments I’ve made. In the end, it’s all just a feeling.
All lot to be said about a oddly controversial film. Again, not a bad film, just not the miracle of film-making that many critics would have you believe. Where does it fall in the franchise? Behind A New Hope, Empire and Rogue One for sure. I also prefer Return of the Jedi, but I have an unhealthy attachment to that film that is not based solely on merit.
Well that’s my rant. Hopefully you reached the end. This should be the definitive review to end all reviews.
Thanks for reading.